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May 26, 2009

Clayhouse Petite the Critics' Choice

The vote for Wine of the Year is the high point at the end of the long Critics Challenge International Wine Competition weekend. This year, the sixth for the Critics Challenge, was no exception.

We had Best of Show winners from five broad categories -- sparkling, rose, red, white and dessert -- lined up for the vote and, as usual, there was a tete de cuvee Champagne blocking the path of the other four contenders.

Tetes de cuvee Champagnes have won the Wine of the Year award three times in the previous five Challenges, and one would prove formidable again this year.

So it was somewhat of a surprise that the 2000 Perrier-Jouet Fleur de Champagne ($139) was nudged in a close vote. What was stunning about the outcome was the fact that a Petite Sirah -- the 2006 Clayhouse Petite Sirah -- prevailed. This $25 red from Paso Robles won a number of converts in the process, inspiring one judge to comment: "I wouldn't buy Petite Sirah on a bet, but I loved that wine."

Count me among those who don't have a strong affection for Petite Sirah, the big, bold, tannic California red that has developed something of a cult following in recent years. I've always liked the Ridge Petite, but have had a rocky relationship with others.

I found the Clayhouse an exception to the rule, and was very impressed by its bright berry flavors and supple (all things are relative, so I say supple within the context of a Petite Sirah discussion) tannins.

The Perrier-Jouet, of course, was the combination of power and elegance you would expect from a prestige Champagne. Others in the final vote included the 2008 La Cereza Viognier ($25) from Temecula; the 2008 Navarro Rose ($16.50) from Medocino; and the 2007 Navarro Cluster Select Late Harvest Riesling ($59), also from Mendocino,

It's worth noting the Navarro Cluster Select also took Best of Show Dessert at the 2009 Monterey Wine Competition.

Click here for full results of the 2009 Critics Challenge. Judges' comments on the winning wines will be added as quickly as they can be edited for spelling and grammar.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:19 AM

May 20, 2009

Ventana Chalks Up More Impressive Triumphs

It would be impossible to separate the meteoric rise of Monterey County viticulture from the evolution of Ventana Vineyards as an emerging superstar. So I won't even try. The two go hand in hand.

Wine enthusiasts with long memories know that Monterey once owned a hard-won reputation for foul-smelling, thin, tannic Cabernet Sauvignon. Everyone in the California wine industry wanted to emulate the success of the Napa Valley, and that meant Cabernet Sauvignon. Never mind that much of the California coast was far too cool to adequately ripen Cabernet in most vintages.

So it was in Monterey County, where Cabernet was widely planted, resulting in some of the nastiest, green, vegetal red wines ever produced in California. Until recently, Monterey County wineries have struggled to overcome the perception that their region was better suited for asparagus, artichokes and broccoli.

That was until the Garys, Pisoni and Franscioni, started growing some of the finest Pinot Noir grapes (pinot loves the cool weather) this side of the Cote d'Or. Given that this happened at roughly the same time interest in pinot noir grew white hot, it brought attention and unusual acclaim to a region badly in need of an image remake.

Never mind that one of California's single greatest Chardonnay (another grape that thrives on a cool breeze) vineyards, Sleepy Hollow, had anchored the suddenly glamorous Santa Lucia Highlands for a quarter-century. Or that Monterey seemed to be the best place west of the Mississippi to grow Riesling. Before the Garys came along, Monterey was best known for vegetal Cabernet.

Ventana Vineyards has been through it all, and winemaker Reggie Hammond, a 12-year veteran at Ventana, correctly notes that it seems weird that after 20-plus years Ventana has become an "overnight" success. And so it has. Ventana has been the darling of the wine competition circuit this year, taking Best of Show awards at four prestigious wine competitions (with three different wines).

If there is a precedent for such a feat, no one has come forward to claim it. First it was the 2007 Ventana Riesling ($18) that was all the rage. It was voted best white wine at both the San Francisco Chronicle and Monterey wine competitions earlier this year. More recently, Ventana's 2008 Pinot Gris ($18) was voted best white wine at the West Coast wine competition in Santa Rosa; and the 2006 Rubystone ($18), a Grenache-based Rhone-style blend, earned the honor as best red wine at the Riverside International wine competition.

I spoke with Hammond recently and, while he was certainly excited, he was philosophical, too. It's not like he couldn't make great wine one day, but now he can.

"We've won our share of medals over the years," he noted. "We may be the most medaled winery in California. But nothing like this. I can't explain it."

Indeed, Ventana's 2006 Riesling also won the honor of best white wine at last year's Monterey wine competition, and the Gewurztraminer once won nine gold medals in a single year.

More amazing, perhaps, than the ringing endorsements from a diverse group of judges around the competition circuit is the fact that Ventana hasn't gone Hollywood and raised its prices. The majority of its wines can still be had for less than $20 a bottle, and the new label design conveys a restrained modesty that's in keeping with the style of the wines: Superb but not flashy.

And it's comforting to know that greatness in a wine bottle is still affordable, if you only know where to look.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 9:14 AM

May 13, 2009

Dreaming of a Career Switch? This Guy Actually Did It

It's the rare person who hasn't at one time or another thought about quitting his or her job and embarking on a different career.  Most of us, however, are content to merely think about things without going out on a vocational limb unless something drastic forces our hand (having our job terminated, for example).  Todd Wernstrom not only thought about it, he has actually made--well, not so much a complete career change, but certainly an occupational shift, moving from being a wine writer to becoming a wine importer and wholesaler.  (Disclosure: Wernstrom and I have worked at the same print magazine over the years, but while he strikes me as an all-around good guy and fine wine writer, we live and work in different states and have met face-to-face on only a couple of occasions).

Wernstrom formed his new company, Ice Bucket Selections, in January 2008.  The main reason he made the move was that he was feeling burned out as a wine writer.  But another reason, he says, was that he came up with what he thinks is a new twist on selling wine.

'I may be completely wrong, but after much study it seems to me there's got to be a different (I didn't say better) way to do the same thing,' he explains.   His approach?  Deal only with small, family-owned and -operated wineries. 
Wernstrom is quick to admit his may not be an entirely original concept, but he believes that he is focusing on it in a way that hasn't been done before.  'One way to stand out--which usually gets lost in the marketing--is to concentrate on the story of the family that actually makes the wine,' he says.  'Big importers that handle these types of wine simply can't fit this kind of emphasis into their template, and so they end up selling the small wines the same way they do the Yellow Tails.  I fully understand that my model requires lots and lots of one-on-one selling on my part, and that's precisely what I intend to do.'

Another distinctive aspect to Wernstrom's approach is that Ice Bucket wines will be distributed only in New York City, and only to restaurants, bars and retail shops that are clearly interested in 'authentic, artisanal' winemaking.  Manhattan, he explains, 'is maybe one of the few places in this country where the average wine drinker will always be willing to plunk down $10 to $25 on any given night to enhance dinner.  Not that I'm limiting my range in any way,' he added, 'but it's likely that the every-day category is where most of my business will be done, at least for now.'   The bulk of Ice Bucket wines will be sourced from France and Italy, and filled out with selections from California, Oregon, Washington and New York.  
I asked Wernstrom if his momentous move was the realization of a long-held dream.

'The transition from writer to importer/distributor was a natural one, though certainly not planned or dreamed,' he answered.  'In fact, if you had suggested that I'd be where I am now five years ago, I would have bet the house that you were wrong.  But at the same time, there is simply no way I could have gotten to this point without all that came before.  I needed to be a writer first before I could become a seller.  If I hadn't learned what I've learned the way I did, I just don't think I could be the seller I hope to be.'

Unlike many romantics who come into the wine business with little knowledge of the basics, Todd Wernstrom has a pretty good grip on what he is getting into.  For one thing, he's already had hands-on experience with changing jobs, and his first career move--becoming a wine writer after ten years of practicing law--was considerably more extreme than this one.  Furthermore, after a decade of writing for a variety of magazines and newspapers as well as lecturing and consulting about wine, he has an intimate knowledge of the subject.  And, as any entrepreneur must, he has a clear economic strategy thought out.

'Because I'll be distributing all the wines I source myself, I'm actually improving my margins by doing away with an intermediary, he explains.  'This will allow me to charge less if needed, and other times I'll be able to clear more per bottle.  I can be proactive in a way that many importers can't be because they're not willing or not able to sell their own wines themselves.'

But is he concerned about having made this leap in such perilous economic times, I wondered?

'I may be foolish, but I believe that the state of the world doesn't matter a whole lot,' he said.  'Even putting aside the truism that wine (alcohol in general) is somewhat recession proof, it seems to me that because wine is essentially food, consumers will continue to "eat" regardless of the economy.  Maybe more importantly, at the end of the day, you either believe in your plan or you don't.  If you do, then you move forward--with your eyes wide open, of course--because if you listen to all the noise, you'll be tentative, and if you are, you'll not give yourself a chance to succeed--or fail.'

The Ice Bucket Selections web site will launch on July 1st.

Posted by Marguerite Thomas at 12:47 PM

May 12, 2009

The Next Big Thing In Spanish Wine

No single wine-producing country has generated more buzz over the past decade than Spain. That's saying something considering the growing excitement surrounding the wines coming out of Argentina.

Spain has given us its exotic whites (Albarino and Verdejo) from Rias Baixas and Rueda; dynamic new reds from Priorat and Toro; inexpensive but delicious quaffers from Tierra de Castilla in La Mancha; a renaissance in Rioja; and rumblings of quality in Jumilla.

The scope of Spain's wine potential is nothing short of breathtaking. To the list of Spanish wines to seek out I would add the wines of Navarra, which is the subject of my Creators Syndicate column this week. Read the whole thing here!

The ancient Kingdom of Navarra is located in the Pyrennes, which separate southwest France from northeast Spain. Its capitol is Pamplona (Iruna in Basque) and the city is more famous for its festival of San Fermin and the running of the bulls than the wines from the surrounding countryside.

The wines of Navarra are rising in quality, and the prices are attractive and promise to stay that way for some time to come. The emphasis is on the Bordeaux grape varieties -- Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot -- blended with Tempranillo and occasionally Garnacha and Graciano.

Chardonnay and Pinot Noir also have a bright future in Navarra. Pay attention people. Navarra is the next big thing in Spanish wine!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:53 PM

May 6, 2009

Judging the Judgings at RebeccaChapa.com

Over at RebeccaChapa.com, Rebecca tackles an issue that is close to my heart -- and that would be the reliability of wine competition results. Aside from the fact that she says nice things about the San Diego International Wine Competition, which I run and where Rebecca frequently judges, my friend makes a number of good points.

At issue is whether or not judges can replicate their tasting results when the same wine passes before them multiple times. These are blind tastings, of course, so a judge would have no way of knowing that an earlier wine had suddenly reappeared.

Rebecca points out that tasting order, temperature, bottle variation and a number of other factors (such as aeration) can alter one's perception of the same wine over some period of time.

I am director of three major wine competitions (with the final deadline for the Critics Challenge coming up in several days) and thus keenly aware of the vagaries of judging.

I take the calls when a disappointed vintner wants to vent over a disappointing result. I listen, I sympathize, I do my best to console, but I never blame the judges.

The fact is, young wines (the coin of wine competitions) are fickle. They seldom exhibit identical characteristics each time tasted. Those that do are rare and obviously stand out. A good example of that is the 2007 Ventana Vineyards Riesling, which was awarded Best of Show white wine earlier this year in San Francisco and Monterey and a gold medal in San Diego. That kind of consistency is a sign of greatness.

This may not be a Robert Parker wine, but it certainly impressed three separate panels of wine professionals over the course of several months. Knowing that is useful for you, the consumer, and it surely helps the winery. When I last spoke to someone at Ventana, the '07 Riesling was nearly sold out.

Coming up in a little more than three weeks a number of my colleagues here at WRO will convene in San Diego for the Critics Challenge. The Challenge may not be perfect, but it certainly is entertaining. And, best of all, in addition to the results you get an excerpt from the judge's tasting notes.

You may disagree with the conclusion, but at least you will know what the judge was thinking.


Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:00 AM